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Push to limit local health orders dies on bipartisan vote

More than a year into the COVID-19 virus’ spread in Missouri, a push to restrain local officials’ authority to issue restrictions in future pandemics died on the Senate floor early Thursday morning after it failed to receive enough votes needed to win initial approval.

Senate Bill 12, a combination of a handful of bills sponsored by members of Missouri’s Conservative Caucus, returned to the Senate floor Wednesday night in a more pared-down version.

Despite nearly eight hours of debate on a single amendment, lawmakers failed to reach a compromise, with initial approval failing on a bipartisan vote of 11 to 19. 

Nine Republicans joined every Democrat in voting against the bill.

First heard in committee late January, the bill was first debated by the full Senate last month but set aside after four hours of discussion.

Under the version reintroduced Wednesday, health orders issued by local officials during a declared state of emergency would be limited to 15 days in a 180-day period and require approval from local governing bodies to be extended.

The bill stipulated that local health orders could be subsequently extended for only two additional 15-day periods in the 180-day period if they receive approval from two-thirds of the local jurisdiction’s governing entity. Meanwhile, orders limiting a specific business could be renewed indefinitely every 30 days by a same vote of the body.

That same entity could also terminate an order upon a simple majority vote. 

Amid the pandemic, state leaders have justified forgoing statewide restrictions because of a need to prioritize local control.

Rather than limiting local officials’ control, the bill was returning oversight to local governing bodies elected by residents, said Sen. Bob Onder, R-Lake St. Louis, the bill’s sponsor.

“Although it puts limits on the total duration of these shutdown orders, it empowers the locally elected legislative body that are accountable to the people,” Onder said. “And they can weigh the costs and benefits, the risks and the return of these really drastic orders that have so much effect on people’s lives and livelihoods, their dreams, their life savings, the profession they choose to pursue.”

However, local health officials and lawmakers opposed to the bill worried that it was too reactive to the pandemic at hand and that its severe restrictions would hinder local officials’ response come the next one.

In an effort to limit the legislation’s scope to the current pandemic, Sen. Steven Roberts, D-St. Louis, proposed an amendment that would have ended the provisions limiting local health orders one-year after the bill goes into effect.

“But what about the next pandemic?” Roberts said. “If we’re dealing with something more serious, I wouldn’t want us to be short sighted and making something where we’re limiting our local governments to act quickly.”

Under the bill, local jurisdictions would also be prohibited from limiting travel based on having a form of a vaccine passport or from dictating the number of people in a private home. And both state agencies and local officials would be barred from imposing restrictions on the free exercise of religion, including orders that affect attending religious services.

Businesses could also receive a tax credit if their property was affected by city-wide or county-wide restrictions that lasted for more than a cumulative 15 days.

The version up for debate Wednesday left off a number of measures that had been a sticking point for some lawmakers in earlier discussions, like a provision that would have required approval from both chambers of the Missouri Legislature for any additional extensions on health orders.

Fury over local restrictions and what Sen. Andrew Koenig, R-Manchester, described as “unfettered power” focused primarily on those issued by St. Louis County Executive Sam Page.

Restaurant owners in the St. Louis area previously testified to lawmakers about the difficult decisions shutdowns forced them to make. Lawmakers said health officials needed to take into account the economic impacts of their choices, too.

But opponents to the bill wondered if the bill’s sponsors were taking a “shotgun approach.”

Sen. Barbara Washington, D-Kansas City, said lawmakers might regret applying “that anger and irrational and rushed thought” directed at one entity to the entire state.

Debate on the amendment stalled into the evening. Shortly after 1 a.m. Sens. Lincoln Hough, R-Springfield, and John Rizzo, D-Independence, said it was time to vote after a compromise could not be reached. Roberts withdrew his amendment.

Supporters of the bill argued that lengthy lockdowns aimed at staving off the virus’ spread abused residents’ rights.

“If we’re going to take people’s rights away, if we’re going to take people’s property away, it should be a high standard,” Koenig said.

But Sen. Karla May, D-St. Louis, said it was more than just an abstract argument about liberty and came down to “a callous disregard” for others’ lives when restrictions were ignored.

“These adults who act like children … talking about their freedom and all of this crazy stuff when people are dying all around them,” May said. “It’s just amazing to me.”

Local public health departments and some of the largest cities and counties the bill would impact said the legislation could potentially cost them millions of dollars and would probably lead to an increase in COVID cases and subsequently contract tracing.

Based on 2020 property taxes, Springfield officials anticipated a tax credit of six months of occupancy restrictions could cost up to $4.5 million, according to the fiscal analysis for an earlier version of bill.

“According to the City of St. Louis Assessor’s Office, there is not enough information to even ‘guestimate’ the fiscal impact of this proposed legislation, but the impact could be substantial, if not exorbitant for the City,” the analysis read.

Ste. Genevieve County Collector’s Office officials said their software wouldn’t have the capability to issue a tax credit on any tax bill, let alone just the city or county portion, according to the analysis.

It remains to be seen if the Senate will consider a similar bill restricting the length of public health orders that was passed by the House earlier this month.

This article by Tessa Weinberg is published by permission of The Missouri Independent.

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